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Chapter Twenty-Two

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Author Topic: Chapter Twenty-Two  (Read 29 times)
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« on: July 16, 2023, 03:56:34 am »

THE word was to ring in Sarah’s ears through all the long, cold day---dangerous. It was dangerous to stay here, and it would be dangerous to try and get away. One kind of danger or another---what did it matter? She had some fear, but it is hard to rid oneself of the generations who have lived safely. They stand guard about your thought and set danger a long way off. It is something you have heard of, read about---not something that comes into your own life to break it up.

When she had the hall to herself she opened the front door and went out. But when she had taken two steps she knew that if she took another it would bring her down. There was a sheet of ice over everything, and it was ten times more slippery than the common ice of a frozen pond, because ice frozen on water is level, but this followed the contours not only of the ground but of every stick and pebble upon it. There was no place where you could steady your foot. She wanted to turn round and go back, but she couldn’t. One movement out of the straight and she would be down. She would have to step backwards. But as sure as she picked up one foot the other would go from under her.

“My dear Miss Marlowe!” said Mr. Brown. His voice came from behind her, full of concern. “My dear Miss Marlowe!” His hand came out and grasped her above the elbow---a very strong hand.

She took her step back. She was thankful for the support. As Mr. Brown shut the door, he told her just how dangerous this kind of ice could be.

“You mustn’t dream of putting a foot outside until we’ve got some ashes down. Miss Cattermole was telling me that she would be obliged to return to London. I am afraid I disappointed her by saying that it was quite out of the question. The gain is of course mine. Anything which gives me the pleasure of your company for a little longer is certainly a blessing in disguise. We must try and make the time pass as pleasantly as possible. There are books in my den, and of course Mr. Cattermole will be anxious to pursue his investigations. We shall have to wait until the late evening---I have told him that. The manifestations do not ordinarily begin before ten o’clock, but we may look forward, I hope, to an interesting evening. He tells me you are something of a sceptic. Perhaps we shall have the pleasure of converting you.”

What do you say to an enthusiast who wants to convert you? Sarah said nothing, merely smiled and made her way to what she supposed was the drawing-room of the house, a pale intact specimen of Victorian gentility. Vases in symmetrical pairs, a faded floral carpet, stiff sofa and chairs covered in a tapestry which suggested mildew, and on the walls a sky-blue paper with satin stripes now rapidly turning grey, and a fine period collection of photogravures representing the more popular works of Landseer and Millais. There was a Soul’s Awakening over the mantelpiece, flanked by a Monarch of the Glen and a Dignity and Impudence. There were many, many others. A fire had been lighted, but was doing very little to raise the temperature.

Miss Cattermole complained that the atmosphere was inimical.

“We cannot get away from this place. I shall be ill. I am very sensitive to atmosphere. And the cold----”

“Horrible, isn’t it!” said Sarah. “But the fire is really cheering up a bit now.”

“Oh, it’s not that. You’re not sensitive, so of course you don’t feel it. There’s a horrible cold feeling about this house which has nothing to do with the weather. Wilson won’t tell me what happened here, but I know it was something dreadful. He says he wants me to have an open mind, but I wish very much that we had never come near the place.”

It was when she next crossed the hall that Sarah had her first glimpse of Mrs. Grimsby. It was quite literally only a glimpse. The baize door to the kitchen premises stood ajar, not by accident but of design. Four fingers showed on it to the knuckles, and a little higher up a face looked through the gap. The fingers red and steamy as if they had just come out of hot water, the face round, and flat, and white as a well floured scone; untidy grizzled hair; no-coloured eyes---these were the things which Sarah saw before the door swung to. She felt distaste, repulsion, and had to remind herself of Mrs. Grimsby’s virtues as a cook---“And anyhow it’s taken a weight off my mind, because I was feeling dreadful about anyone being married to Grimsby, and now I needn’t.”

The excellent meals provided by Mrs. Grimsby were, in fact, the only bright spots in a cold and tedious day. Sarah searched the bookshelves in vain for anything which she could feel she really wanted to read. There were the complete works of Robert Browning, Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Southey. There were a great many books of sermons by divines who had obviously been popular in the early part of Queen Victoria’s reign. There were a number of novels of the same period, published in three volumes of which one usually seemed to be missing. There were a number of biographies of people whose names meant nothing to her. She was reduced at last to a choice between a work of fiction entitled A Sister’s Sacrifice and Vol. I of The Pillars of the House by Charlotte M. Yonge. Actually she found this a most enthralling work. What ingeniously ordered lives this vast Victorian family led. How small a happening could rouse and hold one’s interest. Felix’s birthday tip from his godfather, and the burning question of how much of it should go into the family exchequer, and whether he would be justified in blueing part of it on a picnic---with a wagonette---for the entire family, Papa, Mamma, and ten brothers and sisters. When Papa expired and Mamma had twins the same day, thus bringing the family up to thirteen, and Felix and Wilmet had to support them all, the contest between Miss Yonge’s ingenuity and Sarah’s scepticism became excitingly acute. In the end she gave Charlotte best. It might have been done, she could even believe that it had been done, and though not in sight of the end of Vol. I, she contemplated turning out all the shelves till she tracked down Vol. II.

In the early afternoon the sky darkened and snow began to fall. By the time the curtains were drawn the ice was already covered. She thought, “If it’s not too deep, the snow will help us to get away.” Like an echo there came a restless movement from Joanna, and the words, “If it snows, we ought to be able to get away tomorrow.”

Miss Cattermole had got out her planchette. She was sitting up to a small gimcrack table, her hands poised above the board, a sheet of foolscap laid ready to take a message down. From either side of the mantelpiece a candle in an overloaded Dresden candlestick threw a soft glow upon her and upon the table. She had been sitting like that for a good half hour, but the little heart-shaped board had not moved at all and the paper lay blank beneath it.

Quite suddenly and silently Miss Cattermole began to cry. The tears just brimmed over and rolled down. Then in a faint, despairing voice she said, “I want to go home. Oh dear, I do so want to go home.”

Sarah did her best to be consoling. The bright thought had suddenly struck her that Henry might after all get down tonight. As soon as the ice was covered the roads would be driveable, and as soon as Henry could come he would. She hadn’t the slightest doubt about that. The glow which this conviction imparted enabled her to be very brisk indeed with Joanna, who presently showed signs of being assuaged and departed upstairs to remove the disfiguring traces of emotion.

She had not been gone more than half a minute, when Wickham came in with logs for the fire. It was an entrance too prompt not to arouse the suspicion that he had been waiting for just such an opportunity. On his knees before the hearth with a log in his hand he would present a most innocently convincing picture of faithful service should anyone open the door. Sarah, in the sofa corner no more than a yard away with The Pillars of the House laid open on her knee, was any girl with any book on a snowy Sunday afternoon.

Without preliminaries he began where he had left off about six hours ago.

“What have you done with it?”

She kept her hand on her book and looked past him into the fire.

“I don’t know what you mean.”

She might not be looking at him, but she knew what kind of a look he had for her---a black, angry one, and a voice edged with anger as he said, “You’re not a fool---don’t talk like one! And don’t talk to me as if I was one either! No one who knows that you came up from Cray Bridge on Thursday evening can possibly mistake the porter’s description of the girl who was in the waiting-room with Emily Case, even without the initials on the suit-case. It was you to anyone who knows you. Did she give you the packet?”

Sarah’s hand closed so hard upon the book that the edge of it made a long red furrow across her palm. She said in a voice of creditable calm, “What do you mean? What packet?”

“Four by three, done up in green oiled silk, and you very well know it. She gave it to you, didn’t she? What have you done with it?”

All the colour went out of Sarah’s face, and all the colour went out of her mind. There were left two possibilities, starkly black and white. To say what he had just said, it must either have been John Wickham who had given Emily Case the packet, or else it was John Wickham who had done murder to take it from her, and done it in vain. For a moment she saw these two possibilities as separate ideas. Then with a rush they merged and were one. She said, “Did you give it to her?”

“What did she tell you?”

“Was it you? She said he had been stabbed---and he gave her the packet---was it you?”

He made some impatient movement which might have meant “Yes” and broke into a hurry of words.

“What have you done with it? It’s about as safe as dynamite---I suppose you know that by now?”

She said in a small, dry whisper, “Did you kill her---to get it back?” And as soon as she had said it she was afraid.

He dropped the log he was holding and turned on her.

“What a mind! Didn’t you hear me tell you not to talk like a fool? You’re trying to have it both ways. If I gave it to her, she’d have given it back to me, wouldn’t she? She was anxious enough to get rid of it or she wouldn’t have given it to you. Why should I kill her? Talk sense if you can!”

She felt quite weak with relief. Of course that was true. Poor old Emily would have simply tumbled over herself to give him the packet if it was really he who had pushed it into her hand and said “They mustn’t get it.” But suppose he was one of them. Presumably they knew about the packet too, or they wouldn’t have tried to kill two people to get it.

She said, “Did you give it to her?” and got a furious “Yes, I did!”

“What did you say?”

“I don’t know---I was just about all in. Something like ‘Don’t let them get it.’ I know that’s what I had on my mind, so I suppose I tried to say it.”

Sarah saw him as if from a long way off. She could have put out her hand and touched him, but she felt as if he was a long way off. She couldn’t see his thoughts, or whether she could trust him or not. Something hurt her at her heart. It was like being pulled two ways at once. There was that feeling of being a long way off, and yet it would be the easiest thing in the world to put out her hand and touch him. A warm current of something that wasn’t fear flowed over her. Her hand relaxed. She became aware that she had bruised it. She heard him say with the utmost urgency, “What did you do with the packet?”

She was afterwards ashamed of the meekness with which she said, “I put it in a drawer under my pyjamas.”

“You didn’t go to the police?”

She shook her head.

“No.”

“They wouldn’t have got you down here if you had. Why did you come?”

“I didn’t know. We’ve often been to places like this before, ghost-hunting. It’s part of my job.”

He frowned at that.

“You’ve no business in a job like this---you’d better get out of it as quickly as you can. Did you leave the packet in your drawer?”

Sarah considered, and decided that it couldn’t possibly do any harm to be frank. Since Morgan Cattermole must know all there was to know about the packet she had left in the drawer, she didn’t see why Wickham shouldn’t know too. If he was on Morgan’s side, it didn’t matter, and if he wasn’t on Morgan’s side, it didn’t matter either. And she wanted to tell him---very much. She was not naturally secretive, and it would be the greatest possible relief to tell someone what she had done. She smiled suddenly and said in a different voice,

“Well, I did---and I didn’t. I put it there, but when I was out of my room last night someone must have taken it away and opened it.”

What!

He had turned almost as pale as when she had seen him faint. His eyes closed for a moment under dark, straining brows.

She said, “Don’t! It’s all right---he didn’t get anything---I’d taken the papers out.”

She could feel the relief which brought his colour back. It was almost as if it were her own.

“What did you do with them?”

She looked at him and said in a laughing voice,

“I’ll tell you exactly what I did. I took the papers out of the envelope and put them away in a safe place, and then I filled the envelope with foolscap and sewed it up in the oiled silk again. But when I came back to my room the sewing on the packet wasn’t mine.”

“You’re sure about that?”

She laughed.

“Oh, quite. I sewed it up with linen thread just like it had been sewn before, but Mr. Morgan Cattermole had sewn it up with ordinary white cotton.”

Morgan Cattermole?”

“Oh, yes---it couldn’t have been anyone else. He had opened the packet and sewn it up again all in a hurry whilst I was soothing Joanna after a nightmare. I expect he took out my envelope and put in one of his own, but I didn’t unpick his stitches to see. I just left the packet there under my pyjamas.”

Wickham was staring at her with a most arresting look of surprise. He said,

“Who is Morgan Cattermole?”

“Don’t you know?”

It was odd to remember that she had ever thought his face impassive. Between fire and candle-light it now registered the extreme of angry impatience.

“Go on---tell me about him---quick! We haven’t got all night. I’m taking a risk as it is.”

She felt the shock of something she didn’t understand. It sobered her.

“He’s Mr. Cattermole’s twin. A bad hat. Wilson won’t meet him. He’s been abroad, but he turned up last night. Miss Cattermole adores him.”

“What’s he like?”

“Like his brother outside, only hair brushed down, and frightful vulgar clothes. He’s a howling cad all over---vulgar, hearty, loud---everything that Mr. Cattermole is not. I don’t wonder they don’t get on. They say he’s been abroad, but I shouldn’t wonder if he’d been----”

She bit off the end of the sentence just in timeor was it in time? A most burning blush ran up to the very roots of her hair as Wickham said, “Why don’t you go on?” His eyes looked right into hers. “You wouldn’t wonder if he’d been in prison---that’s what you were going to say, wasn’t it? You needn’t mind about my feelings---criminals are not sensitive. But let’s get back to Morgan. What makes you think he’s been in prison?”

She looked away with relief. Something in his eyes, something in his look, hurt her more than she would have believed that she could be hurt. And it was strange, because he had smiled, and it was then that she had felt as if she must cry out with the pain. She said in a hurry,

“Oh, I don’t know---he’s an awful person---I just thought----”

And there was the scarlet burning her face again. She heard him laugh.

“You keep putting your foot in it---don’t you? But the blushes are all yours---I’m quite shameless. What makes you think that Morgan opened the packet?”

“There wasn’t anyone else. There were only five people in the house. I don’t see Mrs. Perkins or Thompson coming up out of the basement in the middle of the night on the chance of my being out of my room.”

He said, “I don’t suppose there was much chance about it.”

She had thought about that, and it was a thought to turn away from. She hurried on.

“But Mrs. Perkins, and Thompson---it’s nonsense. Why should they? I just don’t believe it. And I was with Miss Cattermole, so it couldn’t be her. And that leaves Morgan.”

“Where was his room?”

“On the same floor as hers. He could have heard her come up to my room and fetch me down.”

“Or he could have sent her.”

He saw her wince, but he saw too that the idea was not a new one. She said with trouble in her voice,
“She wouldn’t want to hurt anyone, but---she adores him---I can’t think why.”

With startling suddenness he laid a hand upon her knee.

“What did you do with the papers?”

Cold and heat ran over her. They were back again where they had started.

She said, “They’re safe,” and felt the grip of his hand.

“They’re not safe for you---they’re damned dangerous. Let me have them and I’ll get you out of here.”

“I can’t.”

“You’ve got to. Don’t you know when you’re in a jam? I’ll get you out if you’ll trust me.”

She looked at him, and heard her own voice say,

“Why should I trust you?”

He laughed.

“Because you’ve got to. Give me the papers, and we’ll have a shot at getting away.”

She shook her head.

“Sarah, don’t be a fool! If you left those papers in the house, it’s a hundred to one they’ve found them. Morgan Cattermole would only have to walk in and say he’d left some private papers behind him and he’d get the run of the house---wouldn’t he? Or what was to prevent Wilson ringing up yesterday afternoon from Hedgeley while I was putting in time over the car, and telling Thompson to search your room or any other room? She’d have done it, wouldn’t she? And we were there quite long enough for him to ring up again and find out what sort of luck she’d had. And if they think you read the papers, and that you know enough to take in what you read, then they can’t afford to let you go. Now will you tell me whether you left the papers in the house?”

She shook her head.

He took his hand off her knee and drew back to frown at her.

“All right, don’t tell me---I’ll chance it blind. Are you coming?”

“Where?”

“Hedgeley first---put the car in a garage and go on up to town by train. I don’t want to be pinched for a car thief, but you’d never get to Hedgeley on your feet---it’s all of seven miles. Will you come?”

The thing hung in the balance between them. Afterwards she was amazed to think how nearly she had said yes. It was inconceivable, but at that moment under some compulsion which she did not understand she came very near indeed to saying yes. If it had not been for her letter to Henry Templar and the fact that she now expected him to arrive at any moment, John Wickham might have tipped the scales in the way he wanted. Some things would have happened differently, and some would never have happened.

He said, “Come---Sarah!” and Sarah said nothing at all.

His eyes smiled under frowning brows. He put out a hand towards her. When it touched her she knew that she would say yes. But before it could reach her the handle rattled and the door began to move. In a flash John Wickham was leaning over the fire with a log of wood in his hand.

Joanna Cattermole came into the room with an old fringed shawl about her.

“So terribly cold in the passages,” she said. “Oh, thank you, Wickham! Those logs will be very nice. We must keep up a good fire here. Perhaps you will just draw the curtains. There is something about snow that makes one feel very low-spirited.”

The moment had passed. No, something more than that---it had never been.

Wickham trimmed the fire, banked it with coal, and stacked the other logs where they would not catch. He went to and fro with his neat dark uniform and his handsome, expressionless face, fastening the old-fashioned shutters, drawing the curtains across them, bringing in a lamp with a ground-glass globe. When he had finished he went silently away and shut the door.

The impossibility of that moment in which she had so nearly said yes impressed itself more and more deeply upon Miss Marlowe.

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